Wander the Forbidden City
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The sheer scale of this royal palace complex is staggering: 72 hectares of pavilions, palaces and gardens right in the centre of Beijing. Construction began under the Yongle emperor in 1406 and it remains the largest ancient palatial structure in the world. With 980 buildings surrounded by 10-metre-high walls and a 52-metre-wide moat, the Forbidden City is so called because no-one was permitted to enter or leave the grounds without the emperor’s express permission. It was finally opened to the public in 1925 after Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China, was evicted in a coup. 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Beijing
Take a rickshaw ride around the hutongs
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A hutong is a traditional style of alleyway housing that originated during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The word comes from the Mongolian phrase for “water well” and the hundreds of hutongs that used to spread out from around the Forbidden City were built around the communal well. Many hutong neighbourhoods have been razed in the name of progress but there are places where the traditional way of life persists. Head to the Dongcheng area to see plenty of examples, from residential dwellings to hutongs converted into cute hotels and restaurants.
Try the best Peking duck of your life
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The taut, golden skin of whole roast ducks hanging in restaurant windows is a common sight in Beijing. The dish, known as Peking duck in the West, has been prepared since imperial times and is traditionally carved in front of the diner. It can be served in a variety of ways, including with thin, crepe-like pancakes and slivers of cucumber, shallots and hoisin sauce, but for a version fit for an emperor, visit one of the Da Dong Roast Duck restaurants scattered throughout the city. 1-2/F, Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District
Take a daytrip to the Great Wall
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It’s a must-do daytrip. There are several entrances easily accessible from Beijing so choose your starting point based on the type of Great Wall experience you’re after. Want to hike? Go to Jinshanling and trek to Simatai. Want an easier walk? Badaling, popular with tour groups, is one of the best-persevered parts of the wall and the section closest to Beijing. Want to see original watchtowers? Mutianyu is a well-maintained section about an hour-and-a-half from the city – get a cable car to the top and take a toboggan ride back down.
Witness the immensity of Tiananmen Square
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Vast, imposing and grey: Tiananmen Square serves as a fitting reminder of the Communist regime’s power. On a smoggy day (and in Beijing, they’re frequent) Tiananmen Square feels both boundless and claustrophobic: one million people can fit within its confines and and many more than that cross it each day. There are flag-raising and lowering ceremonies at sunrise and sunset; expect heavy security and to have your bag checked. Surrounding the square are several institutions worth exploring, too: the National Museum, Parliament and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
Go bargain hunting for souvenirs
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Curios, genuine antiques and piles of knock-offs: Panjiayuan Antique Market is the flea market to end all flea markets. It’s open daily but the weekends are when the full complement of stalls selling paintings, Buddha statues and propaganda paraphernalia are out in force. Third East Ring Road, Beijing, China
See where the emperors prayed
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Another palatial complex dating to the Ming dynasty, the Temple of Heaven was constructed in 1420 as a holy place where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties could conduct a special ceremony of prayer and leave offerings in the hopes of a good harvest twice each year. Even larger than the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is 273 hectares of ornate temples, tranquil parklands and placid lakes.
Trace China’s history
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Flanking the east edge of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China is, like so many Chinese institutions, enormous. Occupying 6.5 hectares, the museum has a permanent collection of over one million pieces that document Chinese life from as far back as 1.7 million years ago. There are priceless artefacts, remarkable artworks and a permanent exhibition called The Road of Rejuvenation, which chronicles China’s history from the Opium War of 1840 onwards. 16 East Chang'an Avenue, Dongcheng District
Light a stick of incense at Beijing’s most beautiful temple
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Tibetan temples are everywhere in Beijing but the Lama Temple, also known as Yonghe Temple, is one of the most beautiful. Visitors enter via a tree-lined walkway, the incense wafting from the alters inside imbuing the space with the scent of sandalwood. The golden-roofed structure dates back to 1694 when it was the home of Prince Yong. There’s a series of courtyards and halls that get ever bigger until the Grand Hall, or the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses, over which an 18-metre-tall Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood presides. 12 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng District
Meet China’s creative community
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Somewhat unexpected in big, corporate Beijing is 798 Art District, a thriving arts community that’s blossomed within a decommissioned Mao-era factory complex. The factory was a collaborative effort between China and East Germany and was held up as a Communist success story, housing workers and providing advanced healthcare facilities and sports and literature clubs. It fell into decline in the 1980s, which is when the artistic community moved in. The precinct is now home to some of Beijing’s best avant-garde art galleries and cultural institutions (there are more than 100 within a one-kilometre-square area) with excellent restaurants and cafés catering to visitors. It also regularly hosts events and performances. 4 Jiuxian Bridge Road, Beijing